‘I am very proud to say I am an outsider'
Taapsee Pannu, one of the highest-rated actors in commercial Hindi cinema, with three releases this year, reflects on her long climb to the top
At odds with her outspoken, mercurial on-screen persona, actor Taapsee Pannu’s house is bathed in serene shades of white. The modest apartment on the 12th floor of a high-rise in Mumbai’s Goregaon area has been done up by Pannu and her sister, Shagun, who have been staying there for about a year.
Their holidays are now spent shopping for the house, Pannu says, and the sisters often travel with empty suitcases to bring back knick-knacks such as pillows, photo frames and even a showpiece that says “globetrotter". Pannu says it’s imperative for her to take a couple of days off after each project to disconnect from the crazy characters that consume her time.
And there are quite a few of them—the 32-year-old actor has already had three releases this year. Her latest, Mission Mangal, saw her play one of a group of female scientists driving the Mars mission led by Akshay Kumar, but the other outings were more significant. In Badla, she played a young entrepreneur fighting murder charges, while the multilingual horror film Game Over saw her as a wheelchair-bound patient battling unique inner demons. She is now looking forward to the Diwali release of Saand Ki Aankh, where she plays a real-life 60-year-old sharpshooter from Uttar Pradesh; a sports drama called Rashmi Rocket; and a film with Anubhav Sinha titled Thappad. That is still a notch lower than last year, when Pannu had five releases—romantic comedy Dil Juunglee, sports drama Soorma, Telugu film Neevevaro, Anurag Kashyap’s romantic drama Manmarziyaan and Sinha’s Mulk, about a Muslim family trying to reclaim its lost honour.
“There was no plan to build brand Taapsee," she says, balancing a cup of coffee that her sister has made—Shagun manages operations for their wedding planning venture, The Wedding Factory. There is no entourage and the actor makes sure she answers the door and sees to guests.
The reputation of a progressive female actor who picks substantial parts and ensures she makes a statement every time, who can be trusted with modestly budgeted, meaningful films, has not been built by design, she insists.
“It’s effortless, partly because I am lazy and don’t want to put an effort in creating a façade or image," she says, dressed in a light grey summer dress, her hair knotted in a tight bun and her face devoid of make-up. She admits to being conscious about doing so much work though, far more than any of her contemporaries.
“I really like my job and I am very greedy about good scripts because I have waited for years to get such roles. I cannot let go of a good script saying I am tired," she says, adding that she is considering nine roles across Indian languages that she wants to do next year—none of them comes with a big male star.
“I really don’t care who the hero or director is, I only ask practical questions, like who is going to release my film, because I want it to reach the maximum number of people. Screen space is not a criteria either—Baby was a brief role and I only shot 13-15 days for Mission Mangal. The point is when you walk out of the theatre, you should remember me. Most importantly, I am looking to not repeat myself. I want to take up films that I would spend money to watch in a theatre. And, perhaps, money can still be made back but I don’t want people to say isne toh humari zindagi ke teen ghante barbaad kar diye (she wasted 3 hours of our life) when they walk out of my movie. That would be a very big hit for me to take as an actor," she says.
THE ACTOR WITH A PLAN
Be it the woman taking charge of her relationships in Manmarziyaan or the narrative of consent in Pink, some templates in Pannu’s career are easy to recognize.
“Taapsee Pannu is at the right place at the right time in Bollywood and is the right person to be here at this point, joining in and taking forward battles begun by a few brave women like Vidya Balan and Priyanka Chopra against the male-centricity that swamped this film industry from the (Amitabh) Bachchan era onwards," says journalist Anna M.M. Vetticad. Like them, Pannu has fought hard to not be a showpiece existing in films merely to give the male protagonist a woman to fall in love with, Vetticad says. Not all her choices have hit the mark—for one, Manmarziyaan’s stereotypical notion of modern feminine strength is problematic. The film paints her independent-minded character in cliches, resorting to characteristics like smoking, drinking, sexual confidence and aggression to underline her sense of modernity and strength.
Nevertheless, says Manmarziyaan’s writer, Kanika Dhillon, it’s easy to see that the kind of choices Pannu makes and the stories she picks tend to make a statement of sorts. Be it Pink or Manmarziyaan, she is becoming extremely relevant to the current sociopolitical environment, and the kind of issues and voices we want to hear—especially about women and their identity, which intersect with broader, everyday themes of inequality, violence and injustice.
“I am probably attracted to these roles because my own personality is such," says Pannu. It could well be a case of what you seek seeking you. There is also an unsaid separation of categories of actors in Bollywood, she says. Film-makers do not come to certain actors, especially women, with insignificant song-and-dance parts, aware that they will decline, and even if they don’t, casting them will only invite criticism.
“It’s fun to have this image as an actor that I am supposed to bash patriarchy up the moment I pop up on screen, but I don’t want to be stuck so bad that people stop imagining me in other parts," she says. Sinha’s Thappad, for instance, will not see her play the conventionally strong woman but will still raise uneasy questions about family dynamics from a female perspective.
LONG CLIMB TO THE TOP
Pannu was born and grew up in Delhi with a service employee father and homemaker mother, and studied computer science. Her parents, who stay in Delhi, are her emotional anchor, as is her sister.
It was a stint in modelling and appearances on reality TV shows that helped her develop an interest in films, and she decided to pursue this through south Indian language projects. She made her film debut in 2010 with K. Raghavendra Rao’s Telugu romantic musical Jhummandi Naadam. Her continuing sojourn in the Tamil and Telugu industries, where she did around 10films before venturing into Hindi, have taught her a lot.
“I wasn’t comfortable with the (movie) industry (to begin with). I made my mistakes and I am totally fine with them because now I know what doesn’t work for me," she says, recalling the time she was based in Hyderabad and had engaged a media agency to help her with meetings in Mumbai. Months after they failed to get her time with any industry bigwig, the disheartened young actor was told nobody had agreed to see her. Learnings from this have stayed with her.
“I had done about 10 films in the south but here I was being ranked below people who had done one or two films just because my previous work was not in the Hindi language. That really hurt me and I stopped going to dos and making appearances to first make a name for myself. When you have worked so hard and made it on your own, you are wary and conscious of anyone claiming contribution to your success," she says.
Things may have changed for the better but Pannu still doesn’t feel like one of the tribe.
“Nobody has said anything. But even now I feel like an outsider and I don’t look down upon it because it has given me my identity. I play my characters and impact the audience the way I do because they relate to me. I have seen life as it is, not through my high-rise balcony or plush car. So I am very proud to say I am an outsider and I use my experiences (in my craft)."
To be sure, the reputation for good work and dependability that Pannu and other new-age actors like Ayushmann Khurrana and Rajkummar Rao have acquired is reflective of a broader conversation and change in Bollywood. Star vehicles no longer guarantee box-office returns, and it takes a meaty story and real characters to draw people to theatres at a time when streaming services have thrown open multiple avenues for entertainment.
“What artists like Taapsee have managed to underline very effectively is that you can’t take the audience for granted," says Game Over director Ashwin Saravanan. “They want to be part of a story rather than spearheading a project just based on their image. I think the idea of image has been broken to pieces because of actors like Taapsee, which is a very healthy trend."
The possible nine-film slate aside, Pannu doesn’t want movies to rule her life. She is keen to hang out with non-industry friends and take off for vacations with her sister when not shooting or managing her entrepreneurial ventures—The Wedding Factory, which she launched in 2015, and badminton team Pune Pistons.
She is particular about not having film pictures or awards on display at home, and not much seems to rattle her. But her mother does collect articles written about her that sit under the centre-table in the living room and Pannu, embarrassed, says she keeps flipping these when guests come visiting.
“This is my job. I work, I come back home. I will continue working as long as I love what I am getting, the day I feel audiences are not interested in me or that I am not enjoying myself, I will gracefully step down," she says.
“I don’t want to make it difficult for myself when I climb the ladder down. One day, all of this is going to go away and that is going to be very hurtful if I am not prepared for it," she smiles. “It is extremely overwhelming and often weird to keep shifting between the grand, larger-than-life world I have outside and the normal set-up at home. By the time the adulation soaks in, it’s usually time to come back and see the clothes that have to be washed and kept out to dry."